John Hinkson, one of the editors of Arena, highlights the core egalitarianism which is at the centre of all Alan’s intellectual work – and the renewed prescience of his warnings on nuclear war.
I want to draw attention to what I think is a major strand of Alan’s life here that helped reinforce relations and gave expression to his most dominant characteristic – putting to one side for the moment his vitality and enthusiasm for life and others – what I would call his core morality. Alan was devoted to humanity – not simply as an idea but in terms of practical social relations, of people in the world. Equality at this basic level even came before economic equality. He would not waiver from this and his thinking always came back to it. He had no time for those who thought they were above ordinary people and who made judgments for them in their name. He was a great democrat in practice.
He combined this core morality with his work in Physics and especially in his understanding of, and torment about, the prospects of nuclear energy and nuclear war – as discussed by Richard [Tanter]. I want to point here to a connection with Arena that had many levels to it. For Arena– Geoff Sharp in particular – the science that made nuclear energy and war possible was a new and highly significant development. It was the beginning of what we called over time the techno-sciences, sciences which more and more allowed capitalism to renew itself by drawing practical intellectuality into its core practice. As this practical association unfolded, intellectual endeavour increasingly turned away from its concern with ordinary social life, transforming that into the provision of consumption possibilities for people as they are drawn towards a social system of a radically new kind.
Alan came to share much of this critical perspective developed by Arena but that is not my main point. In the socialist and communist movements of the 1930s and later, many practitioners of science were drawn to the possibilities of a more equal social world. This was a feature of the times. We know that that perspective became riddled with contradictions, and as they unfolded the devotion of many of the intellectuals and scientists to that social world moved away. Increasingly they were seduced by the new possibilities of science in capitalism and disappointed by the collapsed promise of the ‘socialist’ experiment. Intellectual careerism took hold in the institutions of higher education in ways that continue to unfold, crippling that moral relation which had once been so strong up until the 1950s.
My point here is that Alan never lost his deep commitment to people in everyday life. This meant that his knowledge of Physics, amongst other things, was always made to serve people in their every day life. Nothing could more clearly show this than his unrelenting efforts to expose the meanings of nuclear technology.
In a long article in Arena 57 (first series) 1981, called ‘Preparing to Fight a Nuclear War’, Alan explored the tortured logic of those who would seek to normalise nuclear weapons for use in warfare. He did this at a time when E. P. Thompson had recently written in New Left Review on the emergence of a new social phenomenon– Exterminism – which threatened to take over from both camps of the bi-polar world and he saw as being expressed in the new plans in Europe in the early1980s to weaponise and deploy nuclear weapons on cruise missiles.
Alan did an enormous amount of research to demonstrate the transformation of practical thinking in defense circles that sought to justify the enormous expenditure devoted to nuclear weapons by developing ‘counterforce’ nuclear strategies that planned practically to deploy such weapons where ‘whole populations on both sides are being dragged in lockstep along a pathway to doom’. I can remember Geoff commenting to me that Australian authorities did not know how to handle these matters because of Alan’s ability to draw on complex knowledge to dispute obscurations distributed in the media.
It was reflections and exposures like these that gave force to the worldwide demonstrations of the early 1980s against this prospect. It is no doubt a simplification to say that these demonstrations won the day. And much of this deeply disturbing thinking – recently exposed byDaniel Ellsberg in his ‘The Doomsday Machine’ – went back underground into institutions for strategic planning.
Today we have emerging a somewhat different threat with a leadership in the US supported by followers devoted to a new form of evangelism, one that considers chaos to be a positive force – because it gives entry to the ‘promised land’. If in the past exterminism as a prospect was denied, incredibly, in this setting it is explicitly welcomed. This gives a new and a quite insane legitimation for the use of nuclear weapons. Needless to say it is a prospect that is in complete ignorance of, or indifference towards, what it would mean. Alan would be researching, thinking, talking, writing and advocating if he were still with us.
This is how we should remember him: as a good person who employed his knowledge for humanity, not the powers.
This is the text of a speech delivered at the celebration of Alan’s life in Melbourne, February 3, 2018.